KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The course was deemed too dangerous, the judging too harsh and the most famous snowboarder too absent. The Winter Olympics formally began Thursday morning, allowing some of the tension swirling around these Games to finally reach a competitive venue.
One day after Shaun White pulled out of the men’s slopestyle competition, the rest of the world’s top snowboarders hit the course in a qualifying round of one of the Olympics’ newest events. And while little was settled on the mountain — all 29 riders advanced — there was plenty of chatter at the base of the hill, much of it surrounding White’s decision to skip the slopestyle event to focus on the halfpipe.
“I hope we don’t just end up with a guy who wins but everybody says, ‘But Shaun wasn’t there,’ ” Norway’s Staale Sandbech said. “That would be sad, I think. Shaun is really good in the pipe; he’s really good in the slope — but he’s not the top rider in the slope.”
Several riders, including all three remaining Americans, expressed disappointment that White pulled out so late, possibly costing another U.S. snowboarder a spot on the team. White jammed his left wrist on a training run Tuesday, prompting him to bail on slopestyle and avoid further injury as he seeks a third straight gold medal in the halfpipe.
“I was a little bummed,” New Hampshire native Chas Guldemond said of White’s decision. “There were a lot of guys that I trained really hard with sitting in that fifth spot. It’s pretty unfortunate that they missed their opportunity to come to the Games. That was a pretty big blow.”
None of the other three American snowboarders in the field managed to score high enough in Thursday’s qualifying round to automatically advance to the finals. Instead, all three U.S. riders must battle through a tough semifinal field Saturday morning at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
Earlier in the week, many riders expressed concerns about the course setup, after Norway’s Torstein Horgmo, a gold medal favorite, broke his collarbone attempting a trick. But following Thursday’s qualifying round, several snowboarders praised the layout and said conditions had improved throughout the week.
“I mean, it’s been blue sky every day, no wind,” Canada’s Sebastien Toutant said. “I don’t see why you would not compete.”
Some of Thursday’s complaints instead focused on judging. In slopestyle, six judges are charged with assessing how each rider handles the rails and performs a series of three jumps.
Sage Kotsenburg was the top American finisher, but his score of 86.50 was only good enough for eighth place in his heat of 14 riders. He said later the judges seem to prefer “robotic tricks” and didn’t reward some of wrinkles he added to his jumps, which included difficult board grabs and tougher landings.
“It’s been all over the place all season,” he said of the judging. “I don’t know. It’s crazy here. It’s the first time in the Olympics. I don't really know what they want to see.”
Kotsenburg wasn’t the only one. Perhaps the day’s biggest surprise was Canada’s Mark McMorris, a medal favorite who’s riding with a broken rib and finished seventh in his heat with a score of 89.25. McMorris was visibly disappointed when his score was announced, surprised his triple cork didn’t have a bigger impact on the judges.
“Pretty ridiculous, but it’s a judged sport. What can you do?” he said.
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
McMorris had hoped to be among the top eight finishers Thursday in order to advance straight to the finals. But instead he’ll be among the semifinal field of 21 vying for one of four remaining spots. The semifinals are scheduled for Saturday morning with the finals slated for later in the afternoon.
Several riders said they hoped White’s celebrity would draw more attention to the new Olympic sport. At the least, many felt he would’ve provided an easy point of reference for fans tuning in for the first time.
“It’s sad that he pulled out because it maybe [would] show the world that we can do it the same,” Canada’s Charles Reid said. “We can be as strong as him.”
“Would just love to know who’s better, you know?” said fellow Canadian Maxence Parrot, whose 97.50 represented the highest score of the qualifying round.
Kotsenburg said while he wishes the U.S. team could’ve fielded a full four-man squad, he understands why White had to withdraw — and even sees the bright side.
“It’s one less person to worry about,” he said.
In the women's competition, Jamie Anderson left few doubts about her place in the sport. The eight-time X Games medalist is eager to add an Olympic medal to the trophy case, and she put herself in good position in the qualifying round.
Anderson posted one of the day’s highest marks (93.50), allowing her to bypass the semifinal round and head straight to Sunday's finals. She’ll be joined there by fellow American Karly Shorr (84.75).
Anderson’s second run Thursday afternoon was second on the day only to Austria's Anna Gasser (95.50).
Americans Jessika Jenson and Ty Walker will have to compete in the semifinal round. The 16-year old Walker, who’s battling injuries, posted the day’s worst score: a 1.00. She attempted no jumps on her first run and didn’t even start her second, hoping she’ll be healthy enough for a stronger performance in Sunday’s semifinal round.